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Five tips on shopping for cheap airline fares

A Southwest Airline 737 plane landing at MacArthur

A Southwest Airline 737 plane landing at MacArthur Airport in Islip. (March 16, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

You may be thinking of a vacation after seeing tempting sales on spring and summer travel from Southwest and other airlines.

But while the price may be right, the conditions might not be ideal. You may have to fly on odd days of the week or times of day to get the best fare. And the lowest fares the ads tout are likely just teasers.

Before you take the bait, here are five tips on shopping for fares.

1. THE SWEET SPOT
Buy early in the week. According to Rick Seaney of FareCompare.com, airlines are doing more short-lived sales, with three-day sales becoming the norm. These deals are typically put in the system on Monday nights, so you need to shop from Tuesday through Thursday to get the cheapest prices, he said.

2. DO THE COMPARISONS
You'd love a weekend at the beachand decide you want to go to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., on April 9 and return on April 11, in time for work the next day. But some of the best fare deals aren't valid for Friday or Sunday travel. So, travelers should read the fine print and be aware that terms and fares can change significantly from one day to the next.

3. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR LOCATION
Airlines may more frequently hawk fare sales from their hub cities. For instance, Chicago is a hub for United Airlines, while Miami is a hub for American Airlines. More flights into and out of those cities means more seats to fill. This can lead to more chances for discounts, depending on season and other factors.

4. PAY YOUR FEES UPFRONT
Some of the good feeling generated from scoring a great deal can dissipate if you get hit with more than $50 in bag fees. So pack light and use all that space in your carry-on bags. When you do check bags, be aware that some airlines charge more if you pay the fee at the airport instead of online in advance. US Airways, for instance, charges $23 to check your first bag online, but $25 at the airport. For a second checked bag, US Airways gets $32 online or $35 at the airport.

5. WAIT, BUT NOT TOO LONG
You don't have to book months in advance to get the best deals. Many airlines are recycling similar sales over and over again as they seek to fill planes. But, FareCompare's Seaney warns that procrastinators may not find the same deals they did just six months ago. Still, you should book your ticket sooner for the busier summer season than you would for fall or winter flights. It's a good idea to give yourself a cushion of at least a month from the time you buy your ticket to the time you plan to travel.

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